Monday, December 4, 2006

ode to ancestry

In lieu of last night's entry re: poetry, I figured I'd post one of the few poems I've ever written that has stood the test of time and I don't look back on as crap. I wrote it in late October, 2002 after going on a mini adventure through the streets of New York to find the apartment building that my maternal great-grandfather lived in.

109 Ludlow Street

Every time I ask about my great-grandfather
relatives deny knowing anything--
Except that his name was Michael
and he died from a heart attack
when my Bubby was sixteen.

What I know of him
are six stolen photographs
creased and slightly blurry.
He looks like Hitler, I told my mom.
Don’t say that! She scolded.

Rumors circulated that he came from somewhere in South America.
On my Bubby’s death bed I asked her if the rumors of her dad rang true.
I think she slightly shook her head, but I wouldn’t swear to it.
Maybe someone made it up to explain why she was named Juanita

Then a paper surfaced:
Naturalization Certificate #1423062
Immigrated from Russia through Ellis Island
On May 5, 1920
Including a New York City address

Down East Broadway, down Pike, down Canal
Turning left on Ludlow
Just past Delancey
Before Katz’s Deli on the corner of Houston

Eighty-two years later
The air is still bitter
I am not wearing a jacket
The sky is white
There is more graffiti than people
I find the apartment building
Rising six stories above a tailor shop

Cross the street to stand closer to these bricks
Step in front of an oncoming car and jump back
Look at its license plate—my initials.
Coincidence constantly mocks me.

I am in the same doorway
On the same steps
My face pushed up against
The same dirty glass window

A pigeon lands at my feet
and cocks its head at the fire escape ladders
The same way I do

I tell it I love its wings
I confess to the bird
What’s hidden behind walls
And dragged behind boats

The city’s at a standstill.
Michael found Anne.
She is my namesake.
I’m gonna keep walking
And whispering to birds
Someday I will be an ancestor.

A few weeks ago I read the following quote on one of my best friend's facebook profile: "Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is an illusion." After reading it, I left her a note saying that I wasn't trying to stir controversy but that I don't see the way I define myself as an illusion just because I don't really identify with God. I couldn't put my thoughts into more words than that at the time, but I started to think about it more later. If I say I don't identify with "God" or "God's love" or whatever, then what or who can I say I do identify with? I mean, to me, that question has an infinite number of answers. But I've known since age 11 that my best friends and I don't quite see eye to eye when it comes to this religious stuff, and that we bring sometimes polar opposite opinions/beliefs to the table. The conclusion I came to is that I identify myself with my ancestors...or at least I strive to find an identity link within our diminishing family tree.

The other night I spent a few hours at the Borders in Hyde Park flipping through travel magazines. Doing that is bittersweet. It excites me to see pictures and think about all the places I still can look forward to discovering, yet it kind of bums me out because I don't really know when the next time is that I'll get to do major traveling again. But anyway, I was looking at Condé Nast something or other, and the main story in there was all about Bucharest and how Romania will be joining the European Union. This reignited my intense interest in planning a "return to my roots" jaunt around Eastern Europe...specifically Romania, Hungary and Poland. Romania is the one country that I know the exact town that my family came from: Panciu (pronounced: my grandpa and dad would respond: "i'm gonna pon-chu!") Finding out that this country is going to join the E.U. made me want to quit my job and go over there right now. I want to see this country before it homogenizes; I want to see this country as it was when my ancestors called it "home" (or whatever "home" is in Yiddish).

I think it is really important to know where you come from, to know that you are here because your parents had you, your grandparents had them, your great-grandparents had them, and so on and so on. I didn't realize how important this ancestral knowledge was to me until March 19, 2000, the day my Bubby ("grandmother" in Yiddish) died. As I referenced in the poem, I didn't ask soon enough about why the heck she was named Juanita or anything about our shared ancestors. Later that same year my uncle died in October and my Grandma died in December. My Zadie ("grandfather" in Yiddish) had already passed away when I was 7. So I never got to ask him about his experiences as a Marine in WWII, witnessing the flag being raised at Iwo Jima...or how he fell in love with my Bubby...or tell him that I followed in his photographic footsteps.

Losing all these people made me reevaluate a lot of things. I felt secure in who I was, and yet I was clueless to my past. Who were these people that preceded me and how did I end up where I am today? I became obsessed with documenting my last remaining grandparent, Grandpa Joe (my dad's dad). Every time we'd drive out to Rockford I'd bring along an available notebook and frantically write down everything he said. Sometimes I even brought my video camera and recorded our visits. I mean most of it was silly stuff--he convinced himself he was blind for the last few years of his life, so a lot of what I wrote down was in reference to the hilarity that ensued from that. But, I did get some valid information as well, such as the Panciu clue. Obviously that's just one piece of the identity puzzle, from one grandparent out of the millions of things I could have asked the rest of them before their time was up...but it's a puzzle piece that I treasure.
Grandpa Joe died February 11, 2005 (2/11...adding to the worst days in my life almost always falling on an 11th) and was buried on Valentine's Day (thus continuing my string of awful Valentines Days)

I want to see the world. I dream of going on African safaris and taking my sister to Iceland. But the number one trip I want to take is this leap back in time to these mysterious, ancestral lands. Now I just need to find the funds, and once that's covered I am determined to set aside the time....

(the photo doesn't necessarily directly relate to this posting, but the pictures i took when i found 109 Ludlow are at my parent's house...for some reason this photo seemed the most appropriate out of anything i have on my computer here...i took it of my dad almost a year ago when we went to Aruba over New Years. the last morning we were there he and i and my sister got up before the sun and took our rented Jeep on one last off-roading adventure into the uninhabited areas of the island. i took this picture while standing in the entrance of a cave. 1/6/06)


Anonymous said...

Dear Alyse--

It depends on what is meant by god/God. Frank Lloyd Wright thought God was Nature. Emerson thought God was our intuition. Hippies thought God was love. Michelangelo thought God was an old man with a long beard sitting on a throne in the sky. George W. Bush thinks that he is God, or at least his primary go-fer. Maybe God is what's eternal, and that is passed along through ancestry. In other words, maybe you're right and more religious than you think!

If you come across something at Borders that is definitive on this matter, please let me know!

Add this statement--"I've been lack motivation/an outlet to combine my writing and photography"--to this statement--"I want to see the world. I dream of going on African safaris and taking my sister to Iceland. But the number one trip I want to take is this leap back to these mysterious, ancestral lands." I don't know how to combine the practical and financial aspects with the wishes and experiences you already have--maybe Holly Morris does--but what you're saying in that blog all points in the same direction: travel, writing, photography, endless searching.

More later,

Amy said...

I thought I would share with you exerpts of an article karen sent me after a discussion we had about identity and purpose outside of a belief in God...I thought it was relevant...
you're more insightful and religiously inquisitive and thoughtful than you give yourself credit mr anderson said your passions scream discovery and searching...
"'s something that's true. in the day to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. everybody worships. the only choice we get is what to worship....if you worhip money and will never have enough...if you worhip your own body and beauty and sexual allure, you will always feel ugly...and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths.


...the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. they are default settings. they're the kind of worhip you gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you meausre value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing...

the really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad pretty little unsexy ways, every day. that is real freedom. that alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the 'rat race.'

none of this is about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death. the capital t Truth is about life before death. it is about making it to 30 or maybe 50 without wanting to shoot yourself in the head it is about simple awareness--awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us that we have to keep reminding ourselves of it..."

*from david foster wallace essay

Abbi said...

Hmm this is all very interesting. Funny that the one adamantly self-described "non-religious" unit member is the one conjuring up all kinds of reflection on God. I enjoyed Amy's and GA's comments almost as much as your blog. I love that you have a blog. It's so much more reflective than unit emails. Keep it up my little wordsmith (wordsmyth?) woops.